National Parks,  Attractions

How to Visit Badlands National Park in Otherworldly South Dakota

It looks like an alien planet: hills striped with bands of red, brown, and yellow all reach precipitous peaks stretch as far as the eye can see. This is Badlands National Park, located in South Dakota. It’s a dramatic landscape carved by wind and water over millions of years; like so many national parks, we are lucky to experience it at this point in geologic history. If you’ve ever wanted to visit Badlands National Park, this article is your guide.

I visited Badlands first as a small child with my parents when we drove through the Great Plains on a cross-country move. My husband and I returned again as part of a national parks road trip for our honeymoon in 2020. Based on my experience, I’ve put together this guide for how to visit Badlands National Park so that you can get all of the info in one place. By the end, you’ll understand the basics of visiting Badlands, what to do in the park, and where you can stay at the end of each day of adventure.

How to Visit Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park Hero

Traveling to Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is in the “middle of nowhere.”

…is what someone would say who doesn’t know that the Great Plains are full of natural wonders and fun destinations to explore.

In fact, Badlands National Park is in the (roughly) middle of South Dakota. It’s 276 miles west of Sioux Falls or 62 miles east of Rapid City along I-90. Interstate 90 is actually great access to Badlands, one of the best national parks in the Great Plains. From I-90, you take one of two exits for Highway 240 (Exit 110 or 131), which is also called Badlands Loop Road. It takes you to most sights in the north unit of the park.

You can visit the south unit of the park, also called the Stronghold Unit, at points along Highway 27 south of Scenic, South Dakota.

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Entry Fees for Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park Sign

Like most national parks, there are entrance fees to access Badlands National Park:

  • $30 per vehicle, good for 7 days
  • $25 per motorcycle, good for 7 days
  • $15 for individuals hiking or biking into the park, good for 7 days

There is also an annual pass for Badlands National Park, which costs $50. Or, you can purchase the America the Beautiful Pass for $80 annually, which gets you free access to Badlands and hundreds of other federally protected sites and lands. (Here’s why I think the America the Beautiful Pass is worth it.)

Driving & Parking in Badlands National Park

Road in Badlands National Park

For most of the rest of this post, I’m going to assume you’re visiting the north unit of Badlands National Park. This is the most easily visited and has the best access to sights and viewpoints within the park.

In terms of driving within Badlands National Park, there are two main roads to explore:

  • Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) – A two-lane paved road that winds through some of the top sites in the park, including Ben Reifel Visitor Center and a number of overlooks.
  • Sage Creek Rim Road (Highway 590) – Sort of an ‘extension’ of Badlands Loop Road. It works its way into the Wilderness Area. It’s a gravel road that’s open seasonally based on weather.

At every major site and overlook, there are parking areas to help prevent off-road parking and damage to the environment. However, these may fill up on busy summer weekends, and have limited RV/camper spaces depending on the spot. The best way to ensure you have a good drive and plenty of parking is to arrive early on the day you visit. You could also choose to visit in the shoulder season (spring/autumn) or on weekdays.

Badlands Opening Hours & Seasons

Snow dusting on Badlands in Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is open 24/7 year-round. However, some parts of the park are only open seasonally, such as the Cedar Point Lodge (in the north unit) and White River Visitor Center (in the south unit). In general, the best time to visit Badlands National Park is between April and October when everything is open; you can avoid crowds by visiting in April/May or September/October.

If you want to see the badlands dusted with snow, it’s also entirely possible to visit in the winter months. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the north unit is open year-round to support visitors.

What to Do at Badlands National Park

Woman Exploring Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park offers a unique variety of things to do during your visit. It doesn’t have the same focus as other national parks, but that’s what makes it an interesting destination!

1. Autotour the North Unit of Badlands National Park

Road in Badlands National Park

Autotouring is what the National Park Service calls “driving through the park to look at the sights.”

In fact, it’s one of the best things to do in Badlands National Park! The roads (Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road) give you excellent opportunities to see the many wonders of the park without needing to apply for a backcountry permit or trek out into the wild.

2. Visit the Visitor Centers

As you’ve likely gathered, there are two visitors centers in Badlands National Park:

  • Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the north unit, open year-round
  • White River Visitor Center in the south unit, open seasonally

Whichever part(s) of the park you visit, it’s always worth it to stop at these spots, learn about the park history, chat with the rangers, and pick up a few souvenirs.

3. Take a Hike

Hiking is not one of the top activities in Badlands National Park, but there are some trails to enjoy if that’s what you love doing in the great outdoors!

If that sounds like you, here are a few trails to consider:

  • Medicine Root Loop (North Unit) – a 4-mile moderate hike that connects up with the Castle Trail and passes through grasslands with great badlands views.
  • Castle Trail (North Unit) – a 10-mile moderate trail that passes through some Badlands formations (great for avid hikers who want to escape the crowds).
  • Notch Trail (South Unit) – a short 1.5 mile trail that gives an epic view of the White River Valley.

Badlands National Park also has an “open hiking policy,” which means you are allowed to hike off-trail. The main thing to keep in mind there is bringing enough supplies for your hike and being prepared for the environment (heat, sun, wind). You can see all of the hiking trails and info about each trail on this page from the National Park Service.

4. Spot Wildlife

Bighorn Sheep in Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is home to a number of cool animals that call the Great Plains home, including Bison, Bighorn Sheep, and the omnipresent Prairie Dog. There are tons of places to specifically visit to try and see these animals (like Bison along Sage Creek), but your best bet is to just get out and explore the park (whether that’s by car or on foot).

During my visit, we spotted a huge group of Bighorn Sheep right along the road, which is quite common.

Also it’s worth noting, there are no major predators in Badlands National Park to worry about, such as bears, wolves, or large cats.

5. Try Fossil Hunting

Okay technically you can’t unearth fossils yourself in Badlands, but there are two awesome spots to visit if you love fossil hunting:

  1. Fossil Exhibit Trail, an easy boardwalk trail where you can see fossil replicas (removed to preserve the original fossils) and learn about the unique now-extinct species that once called the badlands home (even before they were badlands).
  2. The Fossil Preparation Lab, located at Ben Reifel Visitor Center, where park paleontologists work on fossils to identify and preserve them. (Only open from the second week in June through the third week in September.)

6. Sunrise & Sunset Photography

Sunset at Badlands National Park

Photographers love Badlands National Park, and you can see why based on the photos in my post. It’s a fascinating, otherworldly landscape that reminds us just how old our planet really is. The best times for photography in the park are sunrise and sunset; the changes in light make the colors, formations, and striations of rock even more dramatic.

If you love photography, be sure to plan your trip to include either sunrise or sunset – or both!

7. Go Stargazing

Once the sun goes down (or before it comes up), stargazing is another great activity to pass time in Badlands National Park. Badlands even made my list of the best national parks for stargazing!

Due to its remote location – both in the center of the content, far from development, and in relatively rural South Dakota, it’s a fantastic spot to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. This includes the incredible expanse of the Milky Way during the summer months.

8. Circuit the South Unit of Badlands National Park

Badlands in the North Unit of Badlands National Park

So far, all of my suggestions for Badlands National Park have been in the north unit. This is because that part of the park has better access and is easier to visit. But what about the south unit?

The south unit isn’t far from the north unit, but it is actually located on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. It has been managed quite differently and has only one paved road (Sheep Mountain Table Road). Otherwise, to visit the south unit of Badlands National Park, you can make a circuit around the outside (from Scenic, SD) by following Highway 27 to White River Visitor Center, turning west on Highway 2, and north on Highway 40. This is a great way to see this part of the park before continuing on to Rapid City at the end of your visit.

Where to Stay at Badlands National Park

Woman stargazing from her car in Badlands National Park

Camping in Badlands National Park

If camping is your quintessential way to stay in a national park, you’ve got options in Badlands. There are two formal campgrounds, both located in the north unit of the park:

  • Cedar Pass Campground – A paid campground near Cedar Pass Lodge (more on that below), with 96 spots that can be reserved online.
  • Sage Creek Campground – A free, first-come, first-reserved campground with 22 spots.

Backcountry camping is also allowed in Badlands National Park, as long as you are greater than a half-mile from any road or trail and your campsite is not visible from any roads or trails. The National Park Service has a backcountry camping resource page if this sounds interesting.

Hotels In & Near Badlands National Park

Within Badlands National Park, there is only one hotel to stay at – and again, it’s within the north unit of the park. Cedar Pass Lodge is open seasonally (usually mid/late April to mid/late October) and has a number of accommodation options including cabins and more camping/RV spots.

Just outside the park near Interior, South Dakota, you can also stay at the Badlands Inn or Badlands Motel.

With that, you’re all set to start planning: you know how to visit Badlands National Park, plus what to do and where to stay.

Do you have other questions about visiting Badlands National Park? Let me know in the comments!

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